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Jumping ahead of Mother Nature

Mild weather has gardens, gardeners springing to life

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 21, 2012
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Blossoms already enliven forsythia and hellebores in Boston gardens, and buds even hint at spring in higher elevations. But isn’t it only February?

“I have some grape hyacinths and some daffodils,’’ said Trudi Fondren, president of the Beacon Hill Garden Club. “You would expect them sometime in late March or early April.’’

By the calendar, the sky should be metal gray, not winsome blue. Rivers should be coated with ice, rather than beckoning boats during the winter that wasn’t.

Consistently mild weather is winding the internal clocks of gardens and gardeners ahead a season.

“I mean, I have rhododendrons beginning to show color in my yard,’’ said Peter Del Tredici of Watertown, senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum.

Bob Rocco, general manager of Mahoney’s Rocky Ledge, a Winchester garden center, said customers “are calling asking for lawn fertilizer and crabgrass preventers. We’ve already started to sell bark mulch.’’

“What I’ve been telling people,’’ Rocco said, “is that we basically have to look at it that we live in the Baltimore-Washington area this year.’’

But beware the buds of February, which could cast a long shadow over the weeks ahead.

Behind the colorful respite from gray weather lies a host of potential pitfalls, from parched soil to zealous weeds grabbing an early start.

Flowers may be shaking off winter two weeks to a month ahead of schedule, but so are plants that gardeners can do without.

“Normally, a lot of the weeds are killed by winter frost,’’ said Heidi Kost-Gross of Wellesley, president of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts. “This year, I have dandelions out there on my front lawn. You see them just peeking out. We shouldn’t see that until late April.’’

The other day, she took a trowel out to her garden. It sliced into the ground with little effort.

“You could go outside with a good spade and you could plant: The soil is that loose,’’ Kost-Gross said. “That’s not great. Normally, our frost line is 20 inches deep. In a colder winter it can go deeper than 20 inches.’’

Weeds are a prime beneficiary of soil that soft and warm this early.

“They essentially are the ultimate opportunistic plants,’’ Del Tredici said. “They know what to do with this kind of weather: They start growing. As long as the soil temperatures are above freezing, these plants essentially do not go dormant at all. The soil has barely been frozen this year, and that’s allowed a lot of root growth to happen.’’

Also comfortably warm are bugs and pests such as the woolly adelgid, which sucks sap from hemlocks.

Cold weather can “hold a lot of pests and pathogens in check,’’ Del Tredici said.

Without a sustained, killing deep freeze, pests “may get farther north,’’ he said, “or they get to start their season a little bit earlier.’’

Weeds and bugs are not the only concern.

Warm weather is jump-starting sugaring for many Massachusetts maple trees, but the season could be cut short if leaves start budding early and truncate the sap cycle, said Katherine K. Macdonald, president of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Meanwhile, Kost-Gross said gardeners in clubs across the state are worried about the possibility of drought.

“Our water supply has greatly diminished,’’ she said. “One of the things you observe when you look at small brooks is that they are at about 70 percent of where they should be.’’

As of yesterday, the National Weather Service predicted that daytime temperatures will rise at least into the 40s and as high as the mid-50s through the work week.

“The warming trend will continue,’’ said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “It will become unseasonably warm Tuesday through Friday at least.’’

Such weather sends people outside. Rocco said customers “are already calling for rakes and leaf bags,’’ items that usually sell briskly in mid- to late-March.

Be patient, Macdonald cautioned.

“You really shouldn’t do lawn work or gardening until the soil is about 50 degrees,’’ she said. “If we’re now in May, even though it’s February, that’s strange. But down the road, the best advice for people is not to jump the gun.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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